The musical partnership of vocalist Gillian Margot and pianist Geoffrey Keezer is still in its infancy, but the two extraordinary musicians have already forged a creatively charged connection. The San Diego-based duo make their Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory, though Keezer has performed dozens of times in the East Bay, from his teenage stint in the hard bop cauldron of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to his well-documented three-year run with legendary bassist Ray Brown (Margot and Keezer also give a CJC workshop Saturday afternoon “The Art of Accompanying a Vocalist”).
One of the most celebrated pianists of his generation, the 45-year-old Keezer even lived in San Leandro briefly about a dozen years ago, in the midst of a Grammy Award-winning stint with bass maestro Christian McBride’s electro-acoustic band. These days he spends much of his time writing music for various projects and commissions, and can be found on stage working as an accompanist for masterly jazz vocalists like Dianne Reeves, Denise Donatelli, and Oakland’s Kenny Washington (who joins Keezer’s trio as a special guest Sunday afternoon at Jazz at Filoli).
“One thing musicians like to do is keep working,” he says. “As a pianist, I like working with vocalists, and singers value what I bring to the table. I’m not much of a singer myself, but I like writing songs, and with my own trio gigs I’ll invite Gillian or Kenny to come up.”
While Margot is already a broadly experienced vocalist with two decades of experience under her belt, the Toronto native is still introducing herself to the West Coast scene. Possessing a strikingly rich sound, she spent her early years studying with veteran masters such as Oscar Peterson, Freddy Cole, and most importantly Norman Simmons, the 86-year-old pianist known for his work with jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Helen Humes, and Carmen McRae. Earlier this year she was performing internationally on a tour with Sting and trumpeter Chris Botti. Since Keezer joined her on a record release gig in New York in May 2015 they’ve been working together regularly.
A strikingly mature project, Black Butterfly (Hipnotic Records) features a top-shelf New York band and arrangements by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. From the first track, a piece setting her lyrics to pianist George Cables’ “Ebony Moonbeams,” Margot interprets a set of songs that looks far beyond the American Songbook. From a gospel-tinged rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “The Making of You” and a sleek version of Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Year” to an incantatory, stripped-down arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” she brings a finely calibrated jazz sensibility to a disparate program.
“I’ve been performing for a couple of decades and I’ve done all the usual suspects 100s of times,” she says. “I wanted something new for myself, and for the sake of the audience. As much as they might love some of those standards, maybe they don’t need to hear them all time. Choosing Curtis Mayfield, or a jazz instrumental I write lyrics too, it’s both familiar and refreshing.”
In refining the duo with Keezer, they’ve had to rethink the material, which was arranged mostly for a full quintet. For Keezer, that means balancing the rhythmic imperative and the necessity of breathing room. “You’re playing music that was originally orchestrated for a full rhythm section section, so keeping the momentum, energy and groove happening is the challenge,” Keezer says. “But you’ve also got to be careful not to overpower the vocalist. It’s a dialogue.”
Recommended gigs: Boothe’s catalog at Ashkenaz; Rusty Zinn; Berkeley Arts Festival
Sadly, Friday’s concert at Ashkenaz featuring the great reggae vocalist Ken Boothe was cancelled, but the band preparing to perform with him, led by bassist and Ashkenaz booker Max Lopez, will be playing Boothe’s five-decade catalog of hits. Drawn from a cast of Ashkenaz regulars and staff such as keyboardist Jennifer Jolly and guitarists Ron Van Leeuwaarde and Aaron Hammerman, Razor & the RockSteadies features special guest guitarist Rusty Zinn.
Zinn will be wearing his blues hat the following afternoon on 4th Street, noon to 4 p.m. when he joins Bob Welsh, Paul Revelli, Eric Spaulding and RW Grigsby for harp expert Mark Hummel’s Blues Blowout.
If you’re looking for some musical adventure Saturday night, the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space presents two talent-laden ensembles that bring together highly resourceful improvisers in unusual settings. The collective quartet Gambits plays the first set, and features ROVA Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Adams on baritone sax, violinist Alisa Rose, cornetist Theo Padouvas, and drummer Vijay Anderson. The band’s singular instrumentation and expansive array of influences open the door to countless textural possibilities. The second set features pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong, long-time compatriots and seminal members of the 1980s Asian American jazz movement, and Black Spirituals drummer Marshall Trammell.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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